Northwest Arkansas educators are continuing efforts this week to contact teenagers who’ve previously dropped out of school or who haven’t returned since classes started Aug. 20.
An areawide push began last Saturday (Aug. 25) with an event called Reach Out NWA, an effort in which administrators, teachers and volunteers visited former students to encourage them to return to school. The event was organized by the Northwest Arkansas Council and is already seeing some results.
Michelle Markovich, principal of Siloam Springs’ alternative high school Mainstreet Academy, said two former students returned Monday (Aug. 27). One student was someone her crew had visited on Saturday. The other one was someone who’d left school more than a year ago and wasn’t on the contact list because they believed the student had no plans of returning. But persistent urging from a friend, renewed by talk of Reach Out NWA, persuaded the student to come back.
“That was an indirect result” of the Reach Out efforts, Markovich said, and she’s thrilled. “I love that it starts the conversation.”
Markovich and her group of 25 Siloam Springs teachers, staff and volunteers, including bilingual students from John Brown University who were available to translate if necessary, broke into groups and attempted to visit 13 former students, but were only able to make direct contact with three of them. A teacher talked with another student at church the next day. Teachers are still trying to contact some others.
Although schools consistently try to contact former students, the Northwest Arkansas Council in 2011 saw a regional push as a way to stress the importance of education and earning a diploma to communities throughout the region. Reach Out NWA was tested last September in the Siloam Springs School District before expanding throughout Benton and Washington counties this year.
Lessons learned from two years in Siloam Springs? Do it early and be creative, Markovich said.
The date was moved up to the end of the first week of school because after students miss 10 days, as was the case last year, it’s often impossible for them to join regular classes and complete work and attendance requirements.
Markovich said staffers also have to be prepared and willing to make more than one attempt to contact kids. They don’t always live at the last known address, aren’t always home once the current address is found, and may have to be tracked down at work, church or with friends. It’s always worth it, though, Markovich said. Students have to know they’re valued.
Bentonville High School Principal Kim Garrett said Bentonville also uses social media to track down students when they can’t be found by a home address or telephone number.
“We find some through Facebook or Twitter. We sent one student a tweet and he let us know where he was,” Garrett said. “We are using electronics more than in the past.”
Dr. Danny Brackett, principal of Springdale’s Har-Ber High School, said his school started last week with a list of about 180 students who didn’t return this semester. After tracking down which ones had moved, the staff compiled a list of 40 to 50 former students that 13 volunteers tried to call Saturday. They reached about half of them.
Follow-up calls will be made Wednesday (Aug. 29) he said. Home visits will be made to about 15 of them. There are still 40 students whose whereabouts are unknown, he said.
“Any time you have a collaborative effort like this, then the community begins to understand and realizes they may be able to help,” Brackett said. “I anticipate partnering with the community on some of this in the future.”
In fact, that is exactly what happened in Siloam Springs after the district tested the outreach program last year.
“Instead of just doing the main event, we decided we wanted to form a support team,” said John Brown III, chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s Educational Excellence Work Group.
Markovich said Brown approached the Siloam Springs School District about piloting the program and has remained involved through the Friends of Mainstreet Academy -- the support team he and other business and community people formed last year.
“You may get a student to come back, but there still could be some issues that they need to overcome,” Brown said. The group helps find solutions to students’ emergency needs and problems that may have led them to drop out in the first place. “We’re just private citizens. I think that’s a real positive thing. Keep people from the community involved year round, not just one day in the fall semester to knock on the door,” he added.
Garrett said administrators and teachers made visits to about 20 student’s homes and made contact with about 15 of them. She expected at least one of the students they met with to return by Tuesday.
“It’s important for them to know we want them back in school,” Garrett said.
Some students, she said, were being homeschooled or working on their GED, while some were working to support themselves.
“There are a plethora of reasons kids quit,” Brackett said.
In addition to hard times or crises in the home in which students may feel there is no other option but to quit school, Brackett said some students get discouraged when they get behind and they give up. Others just lose interest in school or don’t see the value in it. Some come from families where neither parent graduated high school.
“We have a lot of first-generation high school graduates in our community. Parents and the community should support the value of earning a high school diploma. It gives them some choices,” Brackett said.
While schools are required to keep track of school-age students, having a designated day as a region puts out a strong message about the importance of education, Garrett said.
“It just gives us that publicity, making sure our community knows dropping out of high school is not something any of us wants,” Garrett said.
And while he encourages building year-round community support, Brown said having a day and going to kids’ homes is significant.
“We want them to know we care for them and want them back in school,” Brown said. “I think for a student, if a teacher or counselor shows up on your doorstep, it’s impressive. It makes an impression when people show up and say they want you back. It’s not just about numbers. It’s about you as an individual.”